RSS icon

Top Stories

HR's Game Plan for the Olympics

January 1, 1996
Related Topics: Contingent Staffing, Featured Article
For three sticky-hot weeks this summer, the world will be watching Atlanta. In fact, much of the world will be in Atlanta. The 1996 Olympics will attract more than 15,000 athletes and team officials from nearly 200 nations. An estimated 2.5 million spectators will pack into town—more tickets have been sold for this year's games than the Barcelona and Los Angeles Olympics combined. From July 19 to August 4, the United States will host, quite simply, the biggest peacetime event in history.

For those who choose to watch the events from their air-conditioned living rooms (there will be about 4 billion such viewers around the world), a rare spectacle is in store. Sports fans of all ages will "ooh" and "ahh" over the athletic feats of a century. Those who also happen to be in HR will likely marvel over some completely different, but just as impressive, feats. How'd they pull off the staffing for this thing? What kind of employee handbook governs three-week workers? Is there any outplacement? Well, wonder no more. Here's an insider's look behind the scenes at HR issues in the Olympics. Some practices are unique to the event; others can be readily applied to your company. Let the "Games" begin.

Staffing for 20,000 plus.
The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG)—the brain trust controlling everything from housing for Olympic athletes to transportation for visitors—recycles a little joke. Working here is like living a dog's life: For every one year the normal human puts in, we put in seven.

Just ask Doris Isaacs-Stallworth, the managing director of administration for ACOG (pronounced AY-COG), who handles HR for the Olympics. She started down this long road back in May 1993 when she was lured away from a management position at IBM. Her first test: Hire "about four boat loads of people in two days," she says.

Put it this way: When Isaacs-Stallworth first signed on, ACOG was a little troupe of maybe 300 people. Now there are close to 1,500 people on ACOG payroll, most of whom Isaacs had a hand in hiring—from clerical workers to executives. These people form the core of ACOG services, in charge of such things as media handling, event management and sports arena supervision. Add to that nearly 20,000 employees leased through Atlanta-based Randstad Staffing Services, who will perform the more labor-intensive functions, such as tram driving, ticket taking and ushering. Throw in another 75,000 volunteers (handled, thankfully, by a separate division) and you either have a lot of able working hands or you have an uncontrollable zoo.

"It's a very intense environment... The whole planet is going to be watching us. You've got to make sure it's letter-perfect."

Isaacs-Stallworth prefers the previous analogy, although she'll admit her job has teetered often on the edge of chaos. The staffing strategy itself, however, wasn't too complex. The Olympics is an attractive gig for most folks—ACOG was at one point tolling 3,000 resumes a month. By the end of last year, the organization had more than 40,000 resumes floating around. Aside from an occasional job fair, Isaacs-Stallworth says very little promotion was done.

How do you keep a handle on a continual influx of interest? As resumes flowed in, the staff would skill code them, categorizing the experience each applicant had: This person has worked in sports supervision, another one specializes in event management, and so on. All the resumes then shuffled into ACOG's database. After that, if a certain area needed four people with sports backgrounds, HR could hit the code and scroll through the appropriate resumes.

Experience was crucial, says Isaacs-Stallworth. "We didn't have time to do a lot of training. We've tried to find people who are already trained. If we needed someone for security, we'd go and look for people with a security background. If we needed somebody for transportation, we'd look for people that had a transportation background."

Once the group identified a selection of promising resumes, they'd interview the candidates just as in a normal job. One small difference, perhaps: To be hired, every single employee had to undergo background checks, drug tests and security checks.

Isaacs-Stallworth has kept a fairly hands-on approach to hiring, because it's "very easy to run amuck." For a division to bring someone on board, for instance, that new employee was first filtered through HR. HR ensured the job's necessity. Then they priced it, budgeted it, determined the tenure, and lastly, processed that new hire.

A staffing service lightens HR's load.
Because of the massive numbers involved, ACOG tapped Randstad Staffing Services for help with lower-level employees—as well as specialty positions for which ACOG lacked the time or expertise to recruit. Randstad is now the official staffing service of the 1996 Olympic Games, charged with filling 19,200 positions, including administrative and customer-service support, transportation, maintenance, food and beverage.

As interwoven with ACOG as Randstad is now, the firm's offer to be the official staffing sponsor was a novel one at first—the Games had never done such a thing. "We approached the Olympic committee and said, 'Look, here's a $1.6 billion dollar corporation, ACOG, which is going to be built up and dismantled over the course of the next five years. A staffing service makes perfect sense for you,'" says Debra Drew, vice president and director of Olympic Programs for Randstad.

To fill its 65 different job descriptions—tram drivers in the Olympic Village, translators and ticket takers in addition to some management and upper-level positions—Randstad offered about 35 hiring fairs at colleges throughout the Southeast. Three fairs in Atlanta alone netted about 7,000 hires. Like Isaacs-Stallworth, Drew says the Olympics aren't a tough sell: "You're offering people more than a project or a job. You're genuinely offering them the opportunity of a lifetime. People are quitting their jobs to come to work because they want this experience."

But because it's easy to attract people and because the wages are extremely competitive, Randstad could afford to be a bit picky. Drew says her firm looked for people who are willing to do whatever it takes during game time. Employees can't have a job mentality. They have to have a guerrilla mentality: Keep going until it gets done. (For instance, as of January 1 this year, vacations were a no-go.)

So at the hiring fairs, people were screened for their work availability, their predominant skills level—and their enthusiasm. During a five-minute interview, the Randstad professional decided whether the candidate's application would go into the "interested" or "not interested" stack. What determines which pile a candidate goes into? "The presentation of the person," says Drew. "Frankly, this isn't high-skill stuff. It's about your energy level and your people skills." Low-level jobs were often hired on the spot. For other positions, the candidate either reported to Randstad offices or to ACOG for a second, more detailed interview.

"Every day is something different."
Once on board, employees received some basic orientation. Those hired through Randstad have been equipped with extensive material solely about the Games. A fanny pack is part of many employees' uniforms—inside is a reference book of fast facts, along with maps of the various venues. "In 17 days, 3 million people will have interacted with our people," says Drew. "The more informed they are, the better they can help someone and the better impression they [give]."

ACOG also provides an employee handbook compiled specifically for the 1996 Games. It contains information on vacations, overtime and other employee guidelines. It has been revised frequently. "One thing you have to have here is flexibility," says Isaacs-Stallworth. "You can't open the book and say, 'Go to page 14, paragraph two... You can't say 'Well, this is the way we did it last time.'"

Attempting to instill some order in chaos, Isaacs-Stallworth works long hours. She gets in around 6 a.m., when it's still quiet. She leaves around 7 p.m. What does she do in between? "I have this real long fire hose," she says. "And I put out fires. There's always something."

When she's not recruiting and hiring, she's resolving disputes; when she's not resolving disputes, she's monitoring the number of minority hires to make sure it represents the Atlanta metropolitan area. The U.S. Olympic Committee historically has maintained a strong commitment to diversity. As of press time, it was holding strong at about 30%, with females outnumbering males by a slim margin. Isaacs-Stallworth is never at a loss for things to do. "[My job] could [cover] anything from [handling] an upset employee to signing off on new jobs or salary increases to [dealing with] a person who isn't dressed appropriately," she says. "You name it and it'll happen here, because there's really no heritage here. There's no established way of doing business so that people fall into a pattern. They're coming from all different backgrounds and all different ways of doing things."

Integrating new hires—fast.
Culture clash is indeed a big problem, particularly apparent because the Olympic workforce is largely broken into teams. Managers who come from a sports background have a different way of disciplining, for instance, than those who come from a corporate background. Suddenly, these two very different professionals are working side by side in the same management group. You can't truly say one way is right and one way is wrong, but doesn't there have to be some sort of consistency? Isaacs-Stallworth says this is one of the bigger challenges, having some sort of set standards and guidelines. To combat the problem, Isaacs-Stallworth has implemented some training on general management skills to get supervisors on a similar wavelength. Other than that, there's little time to institute a culture for the Olympics that would bear any resemblance to your average corporation's.

Priscilla Florence would agree. She was head of HR for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She remembers the exponential growth this way: "We first started out with meetings around the table. Then we grew to stand-up meetings. Then we grew to highschool auditoriums, and then we grew to the UCLA Pavilion. Pretty soon we got to the point where there was no pulling together the entire staff—each event had its own meeting. But that to me was probably one of the most exciting parts of HR—just watching the organization blossom. It was like giving birth to quintuplets."

During the final countdown, the current Olympic staff is tightening up like a spring, ready for a 17-day attack mode. Says Isaacs-Stallworth: "It's a very intense environment because we only have a short period of time to do the best games in history. The whole planet is going to be watching us. You've got to make sure it's letter-perfect. So a lot of the pressure is self-imposed."

What will she do after the Games, after the 12-hour days of constant fire-fighting and continual creation? "Someone has already agreed to loan me their dog, and if I can just find a beach, I'll walk up and down it for 30 days... " A well-deserved vacation for someone who has just clocked five straight years—or 35 in ACOG's "dog time."

Olympian career training and flexible employment round out the HR picture.
LeRoy T. Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, has said: "One of the saddest things to see is an athlete who, because of economics, is forced to postpone or even abandon a dream of competing in the Olympic Games." The Olympic Job Opportunities Program (OJOP) has worked since 1977 to ensure that doesn't happen. It lets athletes balance between their Olympic goals and their career goals. It allows athletes to make money to cover their training by continuing along their chosen career path. In the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain, 25% of all U.S. Olympic medal winners were OJOP participants.

Here's how it works. Companies—such as Anheuser-Busch and JCPenney, to name a few—that sign on with OJOP commit to a four-year period in which they allow athlete-employees flexible schedules. In return for their support, these employers receive not only capable workers, but some other goodies: Access to tickets and events, U.S. Olympic Training Center tours, as well as promotional support, such as special appearances by athletes at company events.

"This is really the trenches.... nobody cares what a person's position is or who's at what level. It's all about getting it done... "

OJOP participants—such as 1994 Olympic Winter Games Gold Medalist Dan Jansen, the speedskater—in turn benefit by being able to train while staying on their career paths. They're matched with employers that can provide them work experience according to their educational or career background. They have a flexible schedule while receiving full pay and benefits. And they don't have to fall behind in their business careers. They don't stop competing at age 30 and have to start their careers alongside 21-year-olds.

For this quadranium (the four-year period from one summer Olympics to the next), the OJOP Program set the goal of assisting at least 450 athletes. The two New York City-based sponsors, Ernst & Young LLP and the Olsten Corporation, are uniquely suited to the task—and had already surpassed the goal in April. Ernst & Young, a professional services firm, assigns athletes mentors within the company, who coach them on planning for careers, writing resumes, interviewing and following job leads. The Olsten Corporation, a staffing service, matches employees with companies in the OJOP program.

Sharon Couch is an OJOP athlete. She finished sixth in the long jump in Barcelona and has been training the past four years for the Atlanta Games. When she was placed in a job with Olsten, she immediately felt the company took her seriously in both realms. First, the firm trusted her instincts as an account representative in marketing and sales.

Second, and just as important, Olsten takes Sharon seriously as an athlete. For the last few months before the Olympic trials, she worked only one day a week so that she could intensify her training. "They were very flexible with my schedule," she says. "I've worked for some people who said they'd be flexible, that they understood, and then the emotional abuse that takes place isn't fun at all. Now for the first time in my career I'm an athlete. Olsten has helped me feel good about that. I can get up in the morning and not feel guilty about following my dreams."

Nationwide outplacement facilitates post-Olympic life.
So what happens to all these athletes and employees when the dream job of 1996 comes to an end? Welcome to the Games of a new work era—for the first time, the Olympic athletes and staff can avail themselves of outplacement services. Consulting firm Drake Beam Morin Inc. (DBM) will provide career counseling and outplacement services for all athletes and more than 1,000 eligible, full-time ACOG employees.

For the period leading up to the Games, DBM offered lunch-and-learn seminars held at the ACOG headquarters in downtown Atlanta. Conducted by DBM consultants, they focused on communication styles, accepting responsibility for your future employment and writing resumes highlighting your best attributes.

In June, DBM opened a career center dedicated solely to ACOG employees. There, people can tap counselors to review resumes or enlist secretarial support to assist with correspondence. A full-time DBM job developer networks with other businesses and search firms to clue employees in on job openings and encourage employers to access the Olympic population. Job hunters also can take advantage of a database containing 40,000 job leads. The service is expected to run through October.

Unlike ACOG employees, who are mostly from Atlanta, U.S. Olympic athletes will usually head back to residences in other parts of the country. To reach them, DBM will conduct a series of 20 workshops around the country.

Linda Kammire-Tiffan, who's heading the Olympic outplacement effort at DBM, credits the current leadership at ACOG for the idea. Because these leaders come mostly from corporations, they're experienced with downsizing and layoffs. They know offering an outplacement service can diminish the anxiety many employees experience when they see their tours of duty coming to an end.

To complete the outplacement effort, Randstad also is offering assistance for its own hires. Some employees will continue on with the firm in contingent roles, Drew hopes. Others may find work outside. Either way, experience with the Olympic games is a definite star on anyone's resume. "This is really the trenches," she says. "It's like a career condensed because of the level of experience. The cool thing is nobody cares what a person's position is or who's at what level. It's all about getting it done... I mean what a resume buoy—'Let me tell you what I did. I helped staff the largest peacetime event in history, by the way.' That's powerful stuff, it really is."

As 4 billion viewers marvel over new records set in sports this summer, those of us in HR can give our own applause to the new feats accomplished in human resources: The first-ever Olympic staffing service; the first-ever Olympic outplacement service; the largest number yet of athletes placed in OJOP career positions. The 1996 Olympics has really gone for the gold when it comes to people practices.

Personnel Journal, July 1996, Vol. 75, No. 7, pp. 72-76.

Recent Articles by Gillian Flynn

Comments powered by Disqus

Hr Jobs

View All Job Listings